31 July 2011

Carter’s ‘Proust in Love’

Bad Boyfriend

Ordinarily when reading a biography, I feel guilty for succumbing to the usually irresistible temptation to skip to the juicy parts. How can I justify my interest in the subject’s sex life? William C. Carter, who has already written a major biography of Marcel Proust, made my reading easier with a follow-up, Proust in Love (Yale, 2006), that is nothing but juicy parts — plus a full chapter at the end to make sure his readers don’t suffer morning-after regrets.

The justification proves hardly necessary. After all, A la Recherche du temps perdu is itself full of juicy bits, aberrant sexual practices and obsessive love affairs; and because the novel overall signals its origins (and minute interest) in Proust’s personal experience, there’s every reason to believe that studying his sex life will help us to understand his novel better.

The Proust who emerges from Carter’s book is truly terrible boyfriend material. Clingy, demanding, possessive, jealous, whiny, imperious, peevish, and manipulative from the start, and not much improved by age, impotence, infirmity, and an increasingly obsessive dedication to his art. (And you remember that “urban legend” about Proust’s needing to torture rats in order to get off? It turns out to be true. Talk about a deal-breaker.)

“Buncht,” a.k.a. “Bunibuls”: Reynaldo Hahn, by Nadar
Without him, there would be no “A Chloris.”
(And Susan Graham would have to find some other way to save my life.)

Proust fell in love with men but insisted he was straight (to the point of fighting a duel to defend his own honor). In his youth, he wrote panting letters to pretty boys, but as an adult he practiced greater circumspection, making it hard for his biographer to know whether he actually slept with some of these fellows or merely pined for them, or whether he ever slept with a woman at all.

The Narrator of the Recherche is identified in the first person singular, and yet in Carter’s depictions, the real-life Proust in love most closely resembles the Baron de Charlus; throughout the novel, Carter observes, it’s fascinating to see the author pick out so many of his own worst characteristics and treat them so satirically.

In Proust in Love, we certainly gain a greater appreciation for Albertine, the Narrator’s mistress and the great love of his life. Piece by piece, Carter sets out the case (which hitherto I’d seen primarily as an unsubstantiated but oft-repeated assertion) that Albertine is modeled on Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s chauffeur and secretary, an amateur aviator who died in a crash. Like Albertine, Agostinelli was sexually attracted to women — dooming to hopelessness both Proust’s and the Narrator’s loves — and Carter persuasively links passages from the novel with incidents from life. Thus, while warning against the widespread but controversial tendency to identify all of Proust’s female characters as modeled on real-life men (such as Agostinelli), Carter sometimes makes it difficult to do otherwise.

Despite all the devotion and drama in the relationship with Agostinelli, I came away from Carter’s book believing that the truest loves of Proust’s life were the composer Reynaldo Hahn, with whom Proust enjoyed the closest thing to a “normal” boyfriend relationship, and who turns out to have been much closer in age to the novelist than I’d realized; and Proust’s own mother, for whom the author’s feelings ran so deep that he divided her into two characters, the Narrator’s Mother and beloved Grandmother, whose death is one of the most powerful sequences in the novel.

Elisabeth, Comtesse de Greffulhe, in a photo by Nadar:
One of the principal models for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes,
and it’s easy to see why.

Proust in Love is terrific, easily as entertaining as it is informative, and I’ve got a feeling Carter wouldn’t mind my saying so. He does an excellent job of addressing a knowledgeable but not strictly academic readership: you probably need to read the Recherche before you read Proust in Love, but you don’t need to have read much of the surrounding criticism, and Carter never stoops to lit-crit jargon.*

Until now, this reader has avoided almost every word of Proust criticism and most biography. (I’m sorry I didn’t avoid the TV miniseries.) Once I’d finished A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, or thereabouts, I became curious about the real-life models for some of the characters, and I consulted a few albums, most illustrated with portraits by the Nadar photography studio, as well as reproductions of art works to which Proust refers. After I finished the Recherche, I made the pilgrimage to Illiers-Combray, too, to see the house where “Tante Léonie” lived and to see the “Guermantes Way” and “Swann’s Way” for myself. Perplexingly, it’s almost impossible to find madeleines anywhere in the old part of town. (Don’t these people understand the needs of literary tourists? Changing the name of the town wasn’t enough!)

Bellini’s portrait of Mohammed II:
Charles Swann is said to resemble him.
(He’s also the male lead in Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinth.)

Most importantly, while reading the Recherche I played recordings of music that might have inspired Proust — but for me, the “little phrase of M. Vinteuil” will always be a Chopin nocturne (Opus 9, Number 1), as evocative for me as any of the signifiers in the novel could be for Swann or the Narrator.

In short, I’m not sure how much biography or criticism one needs to appreciate Proust: the Recherche isn’t Finnegan’s Wake, and with very little help from outside resources, Proust managed to transform my way of understanding the world. Nobody has usurped his influence on my consciousness yet. Do we really need to know who the real Mme Verdurin was, or what, precisely, Robert de Saint-Loup did with Charlie Morel? Ultimately, isn’t Proust’s perspective sufficient, or nearly enough so? Carter himself believes that, I think. What counts most is the relationship between Proust and the reader.

But that said — I’m glad I never dated the guy.

*NOTE: I was reminded that one of my professors, the late Carolyn Heilbrun, often admonished her students to be more welcoming to general readers: “We have to stop speaking only to ourselves!”

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30 July 2011

The Meaning of Boston

For all of its charms, Boston isn’t one of the first cities I’d list among the most significant places I’ve known. And yet, in a gradual, almost stealthy way, Boston has accrued significance in my life, over the years, as I’ve been reminded the past few days.

It was on the campus of Harvard University, for example, that I first began to understand that going to an Ivy League school was within my grasp, and the campus that had seemed like a tourist attraction only a couple of years before — we went to see the Glass Flowers, for instance, when I was a boy — became a sort of template for my ideas about college, and myself at college. The school rejected me, when the time came, and I’m convinced I got a superior undergraduate education at Brown, but it still looks like a university, and to walk there is to remember the ribbon-cutting that opened the path to my future.

On the Avenue: I get the “wealth” part,
but what’s so “common” about it?

When I was in college, and the pressure of undergraduate life got to be too much for my delicate sensibilities, I used to take a Peter Pan bus to Boston. The fare was cheap, and I was anonymous. I’d walk up and down the darkened streets, take the T to Cambridge and buy books and a snack, then hurry downtown again before the midnight bus back to Providence. I never went to a movie or a play or a bar, or did any of the things you might expect, or I might expect of myself. I hardly know how to explain the modesty of my program, except to say that it was a relief simply to be a face in the Boston crowd.

Today, my college roommate is a Harvard professor, and one of the few people likely ever to recognize me when I get off the T at Harvard Station.

The stage upon which we strutted and fretted —
for a few hours, anyway.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent my only weeks as an official resident of the city, when the Broadway musical Rags settled into the Shubert Theatre for a month of tryouts, and I settled into a little apartment across the alley from the stage door. It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since that summer, and that so many of the people who were so important to me then are gone. And yet the Theatre District is nicer now than it was then, even my apartment building looks rather posh, and I know I’m not the boy I was then, the production assistant bedazzled by everything.

I’ll have more to say about the show as we draw closer to the anniversary of opening night in New York, but for now it’s enough to say that those weeks in Boston were part of one of the greatest adventures anyone has ever known — and I knew it, even at the time. Even when things went wrong (and they did), there was something epic in the wrongness, and a more mystifying magic whenever things went right.

The street where I lived.

A few years later, I held my first godchild for the first time in an apartment on Commonwealth Avenue, and strolled with him and his mother along the tree-lined mall. A baby at the time, only a few weeks old, William slept soundly in the Snuggli I’d strapped to my shoulders, his little head pressed against my heart.

Now he’s a college student, and I’ve got lots of godchildren who’ve come along since (including a few who live on Commonwealth). Yet the sweetness of that first afternoon in March has never left me; spring had begun to stir in the trees along the avenue, and so had something inside me. I was launched, yet again, on a path. It’s to be wondered whether I’d have pursued my career as a godfather quite so avidly if William hadn’t behaved himself so angelically that day. But in the event he made it absolutely clear to me that my friends’ children must become my friends, too, and they’re an indispensable part of my life.

When William met William.
(The torn bluejeans were an essential part of my graduate-student style.)
Photo by Elise Goyette©

Thus I recognized as an honor that another of my godsons deigned this week to invite me kayaking on the Charles. Never mind that I’m less sporty than I used to be, and I was never as sporty as he. Never mind that I hadn’t been near a rowboat since I was Jeremy’s age. No, the thing must be done; it was a privilege even to be asked, and there was no question of refusal.

My original understanding — that Jeremy and I would share a two-seater — was fallacious, and folly. Fortunately, I hadn’t dared to suggest to him that he board anything other than a single. He is a serious oarsman already, and once afloat on the Charles, he sneered at the doubles. Amateurs! Landlubbers! We would never be like them! I didn’t even notice the blister that developed on my left — or “port,” if you prefer — hand, until long after it had burst and torn open; and I never felt the sunburn, despite having slathered on my shoulders sunblock sufficient to ice a wedding cake.

That’s a paddlin’.
-- Jasper, The Simpsons

I no longer possess the sense of direction I developed from all those winter nights during my college years, when a wrong turn on the way to the Boston bus station might mean hypothermia in the darkened streets. But as we rowed downstream, I could identify a few landmarks, and I could persuade myself that I knew where we were going. Jeremy retains a gratifying tolerance for my conversation and my jokes — I availed myself of the occasion to inform him that the Colonials, in their zeal, dumped so much tea in the Harbor that the waters of the Charles are tinted brown to this day — but talk meant most often that our boats collided.

“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing
as simply messing about in boats.”
-- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not very good at steering. I’m better, in fact, when I don’t use the rudder. That is the sort of boater I am. But I wouldn’t have known this without the agency of my godson. Now, each time I see the Charles, I’ll think of him.

And Boston has gained one more reason to mean something to me.

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29 July 2011

I Couldn’t Possibly Invite James Franco to the Marine Ball

Jib-Jib, doing something glamorous and important
(without me)

An invitation to the Marine Ball has become the absolute must this season for every celebrity, from Justin Timberlake to TV’s Betty White. Typically, a besotted fan, who is totally not a stalker, posts a short video on YouTube in which she or he invites a famous singer or actor to be her or his escort to the big dance. Isn’t that sweet? And although I’ve never attended one, I can tell that the Marine Ball is naturally the sort of event I’d enjoy attending with my future husband, James Franco. Just think how handsome he’d look in his dress uniform! And how all the other couples would envy us!

Unfortunately, there are at least a couple of drawbacks.

Jibby, in the film Annapolis, in which he played a sailor
(not a Marine).

For starters, I’m not entirely sure when the Marine Ball is, or what it entails. However, I believe it’s pretty much obligatory that at least one person attending the Marine Ball be a Marine of some sort. Neither Jib-Jib nor I meet that requirement.

Moreover, although Jibby has produced a number of short web videos in the past, notably for the comedy website Funny or Die, he’s been so incredibly busy these days — acting, directing, studying, teaching, writing, doing art stuff, and flexing his dimples and crinkling his nose whenever he smiles, in that way he has — that he simply hasn’t had a chance to write, direct, star in, choreograph, photograph, edit, program CGI, and provide craft services for a short video, in which he invites me to the Ball.

And I don’t have a video camera.

So, while I realize that this is a sterling opportunity (after all, none of the other celebrities knew their Marine dates in advance!), this is one Cinderella who is content to sit by the hearth, dreaming of Prince Charming, without a care in the world about your silly old ball!

Really, I don’t mind. Really.

Tell it to them.

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25 July 2011

Jean-Luc Godard at Comic-Con: ‘Le Cinéma Est Mort’

SAN DIEGO -- “Cinema is dead,” pioneering auteur filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard told a standing-room-only crowd on the final night of this year’s Comic-Con. “Now is the time for a new republic of images,” the Paris-born director said, “in which the individual, anywhere in the world, gathers and assembles the material of his own choosing and — hey, isn’t that Kristen Stewart over there?”

Comic-Con International, originally known as the San Diego Comic Book Convention, was founded in 1970. In recent years it has become an important showcase for many forms of popular entertainment, including video games, television shows, graphic fiction, emerging technologies, and, of course, movies; it’s widely believed that positive word-of-mouth here can make or break a new film. This year’s convention, the first that Godard has attended, began on July 21.

“We are all auteurs now,” Godard told a sold-out audience at San Diego’s Convention Center yesterday. “And frankly, any one of us would have done a better job directing Green Lantern! Am I right?”

Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner:
“Not since Anna Karina,” Godard has said.

As one of the founding lights of the Nouvelle Vague in French cinema, Godard, 80, remains highly influential yet elusive. Although his Film Socialisme screened at the Cannes Festival this year, the director refused to attend, telling reporters that he felt slighted after Sony Pictures passed him over to direct the new Smurfs movie. Godard’s latest work, Film Socialisme II: The Wrath of Gargamel’s Vengeance, received a special advance screening at Comic-Con on Saturday night.

“It’s in 3-D,” one Comic-Con audience member, Jason Nesmith, Jr., 22, said of Film Socialisme II, “and while the hostile alien takeover plot seemed to come from out of nowhere, it did provide a lot of good explosions.”

“Ultimately, I have to agree that a large box of laundry detergent was the only correct choice to portray Gargamel,” said Gwen DeMarco, 24, another audience member, “especially since Jim Carrey was not available.” The movie is scheduled for November release.

Godard told reporters that, “because copyright is now meaningless,” his next project is an unauthorized “meditation on the Twilight movies as cultural signifiers,” and will star Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner as Maoist revolutionaries in the American Northwest; “but R-Pattz is too bourgeois and I do not plan to ask him to participate.”

The late Ricardo Montalban, in Godard’s seldom-seen
Le Mépris de Khan (1992).

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24 July 2011

Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life,’ Second Time Around

Not necessarily this specific tree, mind you:
Chastain with Tye Sheridan (left), McCracken and Eppler

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven had on me in 1978. Released as I began my senior year in high school, the sheer gorgeousness of the picture overwhelmed me from the first frames of its opening sequence, set to the “Aquarium” of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and I went to see it again and again, with friends or alone; Days of Heaven remains a keystone of my career as a moviegoer, one of the first times it was really clear to me that I was watching a movie, and not some other form or art.

Days of Heaven was also Terrence Malick’s last film for two decades. His subsequent efforts, when at last they came, struck me as companion pieces, each requiring the other to make a single point: that war is civilized and therefore bad, whereas nature is good, or at least beyond man’s capacity to judge it, and beautiful even in its violence. The Thin Red Line (1998), a sweeping epic of World War II, struck me as too ambitious; The New World (2006) conveyed largely the same message, but through the smaller-scale story of Pocahontas and John Smith. As aesthetic experiences, quite apart from exercises in storytelling, both pictures earned my admiration, but not much more.

Now comes The Tree of Life, and at last Malick has made enough movies to prove that he doesn’t make movies the way other people do. The sensual pleasure of cinema — the richness of image, the power of sound — takes precedence over narrative, dialogue, performance. Often the most arresting contributions to a Malick film come from nature photographers — or flora and fauna themselves — rather than from the human actors, who fare best when they try least and simply exist before the camera, much as the plants and animals do in other scenes.

Hunter McCracken as young Jack

I knew before going in that I would need to see Tree of Life several times — something that New World didn’t require and Thin Red Line didn’t invite. This is Malick’s most ambitious film yet, one that strives to depict the origins of life, the nature of God, the power (and fallibility) of memory, and the limits of narrative: I’m not the sort to absorb all that in one setting.

And indeed the first time I saw Tree of Life, about a month ago, its most talked-about elements also struck me as its least successful. Just as the film’s protagonist asks where God comes from, Malick provides an answer of sorts. But since the dawn of time, students who start off essays with “Since the dawn of time” have gotten poor grades, and deserved them. At least Malick waits about half an hour before springing his “Since the dawn of time” sequence, but it really didn’t work for me — not least because it forces itself onto the smaller, more personal story that consumes most of the rest of the movie. On first viewing, the sequence seems pretentious, unintegrated, and desperate, almost as if the movie’s central drama embarrassed Malick.

On second viewing, the sequence is shorter and therefore less intrusive than I’d remembered — but otherwise not much more effective. A friend suggests that, with the “dawn of time” sequence and indeed throughout the entire movie, Malick is trying to say something about narrative, and it’s true that his method of story-telling here is often no method at all: we create our own, frankly conventional narrative for Brad Pitt’s character, to cite the most prominent example, even though much of what we see onscreen contradicts what we construct.

The Tree of Life concludes with another philosophically-minded sequence, although this time it’s greeting-card facile. On second viewing, the sequence still seems like a cop-out (is this the best that our acclaimed director, a student of Heidegger, can come up with?), and yet it’s welcome, a kind of reunion of the lost, as well as a pardon of the Father.

He’s played by Brad Pitt, who is also a producer of the film, and without whose participation Tree of Life might never have been made. But star casting — not only Pitt but also Sean Penn, who (briefly) plays Jack, our protagonist, as a grownup — is this movie’s third major problem. You never watch Brad Pitt and think, “What an intriguingly conflicted character!” Instead, you think, “My, how hard Brad Pitt is working!”

It’s not only because he’s famous but also because he’s such a physical actor that Pitt so often flounders here. For the most part, he’s seen in very tight close-up, and for all the loveliness of his face, he relies (you realize) on his whole body to make his effects: he needs to be doing something.

Chip off the block: Eppler looks just like a pint-size Pitt.

Since the Father is generally repressing his resentful rage, he’s not doing more than he’s doing — he’s not acting on his rage, which doesn’t give an actor like Pitt much to do. He’s infinitely more at home in a sequence in which he teaches his sons how to fight, for example, or when he escorts his grieving wife home after a death in the family. (In that scene, his body is telling us all sorts of things: his own grief, his concern for his wife, his embarrassment in front of the neighbors.)

It doesn’t help Pitt’s cause that he’s cast opposite three transparent, completely natural performances by young actors I’d never seen before: Jessica Chastain (the Mother), with her dancer’s grace, and Hunter McCracken (young Jack) and Laramie Eppler (the middle son, R.L.), with their grave little faces and total lack of self-consciousness. In Malick’s movies, the approach to acting is almost part of the theme: the more instinctive and uncivilized you are in performance, the closer you are to an ideal state of grace.

We don’t learn much about this family, and yet we learn everything: again, I’m quite sorry that Malick wasn’t content to tell us about them, and forget about the dinosaurs. We gather that the Father is a frustrated musician but also a gifted inventor. He’s a financial failure when he works at an industrial plant, but some time after the plant closes, he’s successful enough to have moved into a very nice, ultra-modern suburban home. Throughout the picture there are clues, especially about the Father, that what we are seeing isn’t what really happened, but merely what Jack remembers.

Consider, for example, that the Mother doesn’t age at all. She’s like the Madonna in Michelangelo’s Pietà, too young to be mother to a grown son, whereas Pitt greys up and walks with a stiffer, heavier gait. And consider the ways in which the Father’s severity is contrasted with his great tenderness; he’s physically affectionate with his sons in a way that other dads in Texas were not, in those days. In one of the loveliest scenes in the movie, the Father stops playing piano long enough to look up and discover that R.L., sitting on the porch with a guitar, has picked up the melody by ear and is playing along. There’s a look of complicity, of artistic kinship between them, that mitigates the harshness of other scenes.

Because the central conflict is between Jack and his Father, we’re left wondering: does Jack recall his Father more negatively because R.L. dies so young? Because the Father is contrasted with the Mother (all gentleness and love), and Jack feels he has to choose one? Or because a son’s breaking with his father is part of growing up, the crux of anyone’s coming of age? Or is Mr. O’Brien really just a jerk?*

It’s an understatement to say that Malick gets the family drama and the setting (with art direction by Jack Fisk, as usual) exactly right, and he makes that seem an achievement greater than identifying the nature of God. The Tree of Life is set in Waco, Texas, and it evokes an era twenty years prior to my own boyhood, in other parts of the state. But quite a lot of what Malick saw growing up was still around by the time I got there, and among the first impressions on my own life. I found a decidedly Proustian resonance in Malick’s images of a bare foot beside a lawn sprinkler, for example, as I did in the upward view of the pale Texan sky through the branches of an oak tree, and in countless other fleeting scenes, like brushstrokes on a canvas by Cézanne or Monet.

“Where are you?” the film asks God,
and the camera answers, “Above the trees.”

Malick’s confidence in his material is often part of the show. He knows that a particular image — a boy’s bedroom submerged in water, the Mother literally dancing in air — is powerful, and that he can use it sparingly to make his point. Other filmmakers would have hit you 16 times with some scenes that Malick gives you in about 16 seconds.** He’s equally sure of his music, to the point of using a theme from the soundtrack to La Double vie de Véronqiue — which is to say, somebody else’s movie, in the service of somebody else’s story.

The Tree of Life is very much Malick’s story; even when I get the feeling he doesn’t quite know how to tell it, I never doubt his authority. The connections to his earlier films are strong and meaningful,*** and he remains one of the most sensuous moviemakers I know of. That the portions of The Tree of Life that speak most clearly to my own experience are, for me, the most effective may be inevitable, but those segments will keep me coming back, and may even provoke me to raise the same questions that Jack raises, even if I reserve the right to arrive at different conclusions. Ultimately, the movie falls short of the greatness it seeks, and yet it achieves something very wonderful.

Chastain with Eppler and Sheridan

*NOTE: The family name is given as O’Brien in press releases and other material surrounding the movie, but I never heard the name (or the names of Jack’s brothers) during the movie itself.

**That said, Malick overdoes the twirling here: both his camera and his cast (especially Chastain and the little boys) spend most of the movie spinning. Like the helix in a strand of DNA. Get it? Get it?!?

***As young Jack flirts with violence and rebellion in Tree of Life, I can almost see the origins of another small-town hood, namely Kit (Martin Sheen) in Malick’s Badlands. As I wondered how far wrong Jack would go, I also wondered whether Malick was trying to raise the stakes by reminding us (or anyway, me) of his earlier movie.

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22 July 2011

For Nonnie


Riding the subway late at night, it was Bastille
Day, yes, and I was on the way
to see my lover, I
opened at random the book of poems you
gave to me, my birthday present, and learned
that Billie Holiday died exactly two years
to the day before I was born, my
birthday past.

And so I know what the poet was doing
at that precise moment, fifty-two years before, and how
time stood still for him like a newspaper headline
announcing death, and still enough to
permit him to
capture the moment in language.

The next day I learned that Bruce Donovan had died,
and it seemed that
time when it
stops is more like a subway train,
letting some on, others off,
before moving forward again.

And when that thought had passed, somehow
for me the lingering mystery is not
death or time or poetry
or the ways Frank O’Hara’s New York life was and was
not like mine — the subway, the newspaper, the waiting
lover, the rhythm of the lunchtime sidewalks —
but his eccentric use of line

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21 July 2011

Guidelines for Griping about the Heat

Hot enough for you?

Now that the July is blazing away, many of us are enjoying one of America’s favorite summer pastimes: griping about the heat. But perhaps you’ve noticed that, just as you’re in the middle of a really good rant, your intended audience seems less than interested in what you have to say about how hot it is, how you can’t stand it another minute, how you wish you could dive into a vat of iced tea right now, and how many eggs you could fry on the hood of your car. Despite the endless fascination of this topic and your extreme erudition, his eyes begin to glaze over, he checks his watch, and he changes the subject abruptly.

How to explain this phenomenon? Have your descriptive powers wilted in the heat? Is your listening friend immune to the high temperatures from which you suffer so? Is it possible that he’s actually feeling hotter than you — that temperatures are higher where he’s standing, three feet away from you? Is he frustrated that, although you complain about the heat each day, you never seem to do anything about it?

No, dear reader, the real reason your friends don’t enjoy listening to your complaints is simply this: you are not qualified to gripe.

But fear not! The following handy guidelines will help you to establish all the necessary qualifications. If you pass, you’ll be ready to gripe away!

You certainly can can-can … but can you complain?

1. The current temperature outside is
85 degrees (Score 1 point)
b. 90 degrees (Score 2 points)
c. 95 degrees (Score 3 points)
d. 100 degrees (Score 5 points)
e. 105 degrees or higher (Score 15 points, but deduct 10 points if you calculated using the “Heat Index”)

2. My home is
air-conditioned (Deduct 50 points)
b. air-conditioned, but the air-conditioning is broken (Score 5 points)
c. not air-conditioned at all (Score 20 points)
d. not even equipped with an electric fan (Score 50 points)
e. equipped with a swimming pool (Deduct 5,000 points)

3. My car is
not air-conditioned (Score 50 points)
b. air-conditioned (Deduct 100 points)
c. I don’t own a car; I take public transportation to work (Score 100 points)
d. I take public transportation in New York City (Score 1,000 points)

4. My place of work is
air-conditioned (Deduct 1,000 points)
b. not air-conditioned (Score 1,000 points)
c. an open field (Stop! You’re a winner!)

5. Standard attire for employees at my place of work is
a business suit (Score 50 points)
b. the costume of a 16th-century Italian noble (Score 75 points)
c. “business casual” (Score 35 points)
d. shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops (Score 25 points)
e. workout clothes or pajamas (Score 10 points)
f. underwear or bare-ass naked (Score 5 points and phone me if there are any positions available at your office)

6. The distance I walk from my door to the vehicle I take to work or the store is
less than the length of a New York City block (Score 5 points)
b. longer than a New York City block (Score 10 points)
c. the equivalent of several New York City blocks (Score 100 points)
d. air-conditioned (Deduct 100 points)
e. not air-conditioned (Score 50 points)
f. along a New York City garbage-collection route (Score 100 points)

7. On average, I use the New York City subway system, standing on un-air-conditioned, barely ventilated subway platforms choked with foul-smelling garbage and human excrement
never (Deduct 500 points)
b. three or four times per week (Score 100 points)
c. every day to and from work (Score 250 points)
d. more than 10 times per week (Score 500 points)

8. Please characterize yourself:
I have a medical condition that makes high temperatures dangerous to my health (Score 200 points)
b. I am Marilyn Monroe, and I am performing “Heat Wave” at this very minute (Score 500 points)
c. I am in excellent physical condition and find a brisk, clean sweat extremely refreshing — every day, if possible (Deduct 10 points)
d. Like most Americans in the so-called Heartland, I am overweight and would probably complain about the heat even when the weather was perfectly nice (Deduct 250 points)

Results: The higher you scored, the better qualified you are to gripe about the heat. If you scored less than 750 points, shut up. Now. Because we New Yorkers really don’t want to hear how hot it is down there in Texas.

Really, Texas — what did you expect? I know that the educational system has declined since I was a boy, but come on! What part of the map made you think Texas was a county in Sweden? Summer is supposed to be unbearably hot where you are! Whereas we’re in the north — and our elected representatives are much more likely than yours to recognize the reality of global warming and other science.

But above all, as New York attains Texas-style temperatures this week, I offer you fair warning:

If your score isn’t higher than ours,
do not tell us not to complain.

Thank you.

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20 July 2011

Disney’s Latest ‘Winnie the Pooh’

With Disney’s latest foray into the Hundred-Acre Wood, I sensed again that the studio’s animation department (lately headed by John Lasseter, who brought Pixar to glory) is engaged in a serious, studious quest to rediscover what used to make its movies special. Surely it’s not nostalgia alone that makes us remember Lady and the Tramp more fondly than Brother Bear. So with Winnie the Pooh as with the recent Tangled, you can see Disney’s animators returning to specific scenes and elements from earlier, well-beloved films. Tangled ripped off “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid, for example, but Winnie the Pooh mines other Pooh movies and comes up with a modest, sweet entertainment that proudly upholds the tradition.

Characters scamper among the printed pages of a Pooh book, just as they did in the very first short subject, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, in 1966, and a kindly English gentleman narrates: now it’s John Cleese, then it was Sebastian Cabot. Character voices are perfectly matched to their predecessors, and they behave like themselves, too. Backgrounds again resemble the pen-and-ink and colored-wash illustrations by E.H. Shepard, color plates in fancier editions of A.A. Milne’s books, so that even when the foreground figures are a bit cruder (Piglet is barely a drawing at all), we get an atmosphere rich in mood and interest.

It must be very grand to know how to read.

Most importantly, the screenplay is based on three original Milne stories, so that you never feel as if the studio is taking unfair advantage of us: this time out, they’re not presenting us with tales told by a committee, slapping the Pooh label on any old “product” they can come up with, in confidence we’ll buy it anyway, and cheapening the beloved figures as they stray farther and father from their sources. Too often, Pooh feels like a mere market brand in Disney’s hands — but here, under the direction of Stephen Anderson and Don Hall, we’re getting the real thing, or close to it.

Some of Milne’s wit has been diluted for much younger audiences than he intended, the characters are quite a bit more simple-minded than the originals, and the new songs don’t rival the gems that the Sherman Brothers wrote for the early Pooh movies. The new melodies are as simple as can be, and lyrically there’s nothing to approach The Blustery Day’s
The rain rain rain came down down down
In rushing rising rivulets.
The river crept out of its bed
And crept right into Piglet’s!
Yet the new movie, like Milne’s books, is about Thinking as much as it is about Feelings, and there are moments that get everything exactly right, notably a scene in which Piglet tries to explain to his friends that he can’t tie a knot; and the movie is even bold enough to present darker colors and (slightly) scary stuff, in tacit recognition of the possibility that we love the old classics more because they engaged all our emotions more profoundly.

When Owl describes the monstrous Backson, the animation shifts to a different style (as if drawn in chalk) and we see what the various characters imagine — they take this monster’s threats very, very personally. It’s not unlike Pooh’s nightmare of Heffalumps and Woozles, in The Blustery Day.*

The youngest audiences may not spot the new movie’s borrowings and inspirations, but as I say, older audiences are likely to find reassurance and rebuilding trust in Disney. Our friends are treated with respect and care — and they are our friends, in the way that characters from the best books and movies are. They stick with us, they grow and change with us, and they can always be counted on to make us laugh or cry.

Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree was released a few months before my fifth birthday, the perfect age to discover the stories, and my grandparents gave my brother and me Milne’s books for Christmas that year. My aunt Loey and cousin Ruth made me a stuffed Pooh that was my constant bedmate until I went to college, whereupon he retreated to a discreet but watchful position on a shelf; in later years he wore a Ramones T-shirt.**

Watching the new movie, and remembering exactly why Christopher Robin is “Gon Out Bisy Back Son” and what it is that he does in the mornings — and what that inexorably leads to — I felt a sharp pang. I have just turned 50, I was sitting alone in a movie theater, and I’m really not sure I could handle a scene in which we come to an Enchanted Place, and in which we witness both the knighting of Sir Pooh de Bear and a solemn promise never to forget. The prospect of not being allowed to do Nothing anymore seems dire indeed — and so does the assurance that, whatever happens on the way, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing. I’m sentimental that way.

But mercifully, even under Lasseter’s administration, the Disney folks aren’t ready to end this series, or even to suggest that endings are possible. The Disney Store gets a screen credit in this movie, for heaven’s sake! We are not ready to close up shop. So be it. I’m eager for the Disney animators to keep learning the lessons of the classics, and eventually to put those lessons to practical use in fresher circumstances. For now, though, a little smackerel of crass Disney commercialism seems like a good thing.***

*NOTE: The final credits offer more proof of Lasseter’s influence: like the credits in a Pixar movie, they’re very long but enlivened with appearances by the movie’s stars. Thus we see Pooh and friends clambering up and down the titles, and we even get a fleeting game of Pooh Sticks. In Pixar fashion, there’s also a list of the babies born during the movie’s production, and a tribute to one colleague who passed away. And if you stick around until the final credits are finished, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Backson yourself. Waiting for his scene is really not a hardship, provided your movie-going companions aren’t too squirmish.

**Thanks to Ruth, Pooh has a twin, a graduation present, who wears a Brown shirt.

***That said, Pooh has been overshadowed entirely by Harry Potter this week. The theater where I saw Pooh was nearly vacant, whereas ticket sales for Harry Potter have broken records (and you don’t need to be Sybill Trelawney to have foretold that particular outcome).

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18 July 2011

Menotti’s ‘Consul’ at Opera New Jersey

To this we’ve come, Part 1:
Magda (Tetriani) confronts the Secretary (Babcock).
All production photos by Jeff Reeder, Courtesy of Opera New Jersey©

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, went to the opera on Saturday night — and what an opera she picked! Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul depicts the increasingly desperate attempts of a political dissident’s wife to obtain a visa in order to flee her homeland for the relative safety of a larger nation. Stylistically, the ensuing bureaucratic nightmare is more Playhouse 90 than Franz Kafka, but close enough, and in any case I wonder what Napolitano can have thought of the opera. After all, immigration and refugees are among her day-to-day concerns, and one person’s dissident is another person’s terrorist. And while Menotti scrupulously avoids naming the country whose Consulate is the setting for half the opera, almost everybody has assumed he was talking about the United States, ever since the show opened in 1950, on Broadway.

I didn’t find out that Secretary Napolitano was at Princeton’s McCarter Theater until after the show had ended. For me, Opera New Jersey’s production was most significant for the participation of Joyce Castle, as the Mother, and of Joel Revzen, who conducted a thrilling recording of this score (with Joyce) for Newport Classics several years ago. Also of significance: this would be the last opera I would attend before my 50th birthday.

To this we’ve come, Part 2:
The Diva gave me flowers after a performance. That was a first.
Joyce Castle and WVM, backstage, 16 July 2011.

Michael Unger’s stage direction lacked some of the more detailed character work that this piece really invites: instead of Stanislavskian Method, we got relatively shallow, representational acting from most (but not all!) of the cast. For example, as the Secret Police Agent, Matt Boehler sang with bite and menace, but he made scant (and unsubtle) use of his potentially menacing physicality. Unger’s approach was so intelligent, however, that I suspected he could have elicited even more interesting work from Boehler with just a little more rehearsal time.

Nicholas Pallesen has further to go, but if the young baritone will work more on his acting, he may be on the brink of a major career: for now he sings with gorgeous, sit-up-and-pay-attention tone, but he remains uninvolved dramatically, and we got from him only the sketchiest outlines of John Sorel’s emotions.

As John’s wife, Magda Sorel, Tbilisi-born soprano Lina Tetriani also displayed a ravishing voice, and she’s got appealing stage presence. Her acting increased in confidence and specificity as the evening progressed, and by the time she arrived at her big number, “To this we’ve come,” she had established a touching, memorable character, lending the scene extra poignancy. I’m eager to hear her again.

Magda’s foil, the Secretary, was mezzo Audrey Babcock, striking a nice balance between comedy and terror until, in Act III, her bureaucratic frostiness melts and we see the compassionate creature within her. Babcock turns out to be a bombshell offstage: it can’t be easy to mask that much va-voom.

I also enjoyed Jason Ferrante’s adroit portrayal of the maladroit Magician, and the company’s Emerging Artists handled their roles with skill. While it may be a tough sell to audiences (and all praise to Opera New Jersey for programming it), Menotti’s opera does recommend itself to smaller companies, I realized, precisely because it’s got only a few central roles that demand seasoned pros, alongside so many minor supporting roles, that are perfect for young artists: the kids get valuable stage experience, while the grownups bear the responsibility for the success of the performance.

The Secret Police Agent (Boehler) menaces Magda (Tetriani) and the Mother (Castle).

Even if all you’re counting is the résumé, Joyce Castle’s experience would be hard to beat: she’s sung the Mother in four productions, I believe. Add to that the qualitative assessment that this is Joyce Castle, for Pete’s sake, and you get an unbeatable performance. In her hands, the Mother is a woman who knows she’s not like her kids; she wasn’t born to be a hero, and when she does show defiance, it’s small-scale. You recognize her from TV news reports, not history books and statues.

Intriguingly, in Unger’s staging, the Mother is less beaten-down than the character was in Sam Helfrich’s production for Glimmerglass, in 2009. She’s almost an optimist, in fact, until the death of her grandson, which stops her in her tracks. We could see that she’s been a unifying force in this family, and that her death (which takes place offstage in Act III), as much as the baby’s, might well cast Magda and John adrift.* Joyce’s singing was thrilling, too, especially powerful in the Act I trio and tender in Act II’s heartbreaking lullaby.

Michael Schweikardt came up with a truly arresting, inventive visual image: a bank of filing cabinets that dominated the stage. For scenes in the Sorels’ apartment, the center rows of cabinets flew offstage, revealing a cramped top-floor room. That should have made scene changes easier: just stuff one scene’s furniture onto the platform behind the cabinets as the next scene begins. Instead, the audience has to endure a lot of tedious back-and-forth as stagehands (actually Emerging Artists with little to sing in this production) toted chairs and tables on and off. Just because Menotti wrote scene-change music, it doesn’t mean that’s what it has to be used for!

And you thought it was Kafkaesque before!
Magda’s dream, Act III

The way Revzen conducts this opera, one hardly needs a staging at all: listen to his recording, and you can hear every gesture, see every prop and costume. He’s no less skillful in this performance. What an unjustly under-recognized talent he is! Especially in this score, Menotti’s authentic gift for theatrical music gets its full due under Revzen’s attentive guidance. Sure, portions of the drama cry out for more dissonance and less prettiness — but The Consul is an effective piece with a lot to say to contemporary audiences.

Including Janet Napolitano — and me — and you, if you’re lucky. There’s one more performance:

Menotti’s The Consul
Opera New Jersey
Matthews Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center
Princeton, NJ
24 July at 2 PM.
Click here for ticket information.

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16 July 2011

‘Gossip Girl’ Exclusive!!!

Does Prince Charming ever take off that darned tuxedo???
Inquiring minds want to know!!!

Well, Upper East Siders, I met the Prince of Monaco the other day!! Or anyway, the fellow who plays him on Gossip Girl. Stopping by a location shoot for the popular TV series, I met sensitive Dan Humphrey, too!! So now I can give my readers this EXCLUSIVE SCOOP:

Penn Badgley (who plays Dan) is very polite, and it’s clear he was brought up properly. Hugo Becker (who plays Prince Louis) is French in real life and very friendly, to the point that he didn’t make fun of my accent.

What dark secrets do Penn’s flawless manners conceal???

While you are speaking with these men, you keep thinking that you own socks older than they are, and you suspect that you won’t run into anybody else quite this good-looking for another day or two, at least. In the back of your mind, you are half-hoping to discover a flaw of any kind — but there’s nothing wrong with either of these guys.


(I know this hardly constitutes gossip, but I only met the guys for a second, and I couldn’t tell what was happening in their scene — no plot spoilers here. But how often do I get to run boldface items on this blog? Or use multiple punctuation marks???)

Torchwood: I don’t know these people.
Because production has wrapped, I can’t visit the set.
And because it’s on a pay channel, I haven’t seen the show yet.

Like my visit to the set of TV’s Heroes, my visit to the set of Gossip Girl was largely wasted on me. I’m actually somewhat conversant in Gossip Girl lore, but now that my goddaughter is in college, I’m sadly behind the times: I didn’t even know the Prince of Monaco was a character on the show, yet here we were in front of the Consulate, and poor Hugo Becker was wearing a tuxedo in the midday July swelter.

Still, this is an excellent opportunity to celebrate the cultural achievements of some of my friends who are not opera singers. After all, they’re boldface-worthy, too! So while Sara Nemeth Goodman continues to work on Gossip Girl, her ex, Nate Goodman, shot the new Torchwood: Miracle Day, which just began its run on the Starz channel. Meanwhile, Michael Karnow’s new series, Alphas, has had its premiere on the Syfy channel.

Maybe Michael will invite me to visit this set!
(Hint hint)

I watched the Alphas pilot, starring the ever-wonderful David Strathairn, whom I’ve never met, just saying. The show promises to be great fun. So stay tuned!


From the Alphas pilot: Strathairn, Azita Ghanizada (Rachel),
Ryan Cartwright (Gary, standing)

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15 July 2011

President Obama Keeps Watching ‘Americathon’ for Some Reason, White House Sources Say

“I wish he’d get off his fanny and stop watching that thing,”
First Lady Michelle Obama told reporters.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been repeatedly viewing Americathon, a satirical comedy from 1979, according to White House sources. “He must have watched that movie 15 or 16 times, just in the past two weeks,” said one presidential aide, speaking off the record. “None of us can figure out why.”

Unsuccessful upon its initial release, Americathon has been available on DVD only since January 2011. The film stars John Ritter as the President of the United States, who consults a media specialist (Peter Riegert) when the federal government goes bankrupt; ultimately, the United States holds a telethon to raise urgently needed funds. Harvey Korman, Fred Willard, and Zane Busby also star, under the direction of Neal Israel.

“The President even plays Americathon during high-level budget meetings,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters. “I know it’s not an especially funny movie or anything, but he watches it as if it were The Sorrow and the Pity, for Pete’s sake, and then he looks you right in the eye, really intense, and says, ‘What do you think?’ I think it’s a terrible movie, that’s what I think, but he seems to love it so much, I just don’t have the heart to say anything.”

A poster for the 1979 satirical comedy

“POTUS never even cracks a smile,” Vice-President Joe Biden confirmed via Twitter. “It’s getting to the point, I don’t want to eat dinner at his house anymore. He just sits there, staring at the damned DVD. Hashtag starting to creep me out.”

Other close associates may have run out of patience already. “If I have to watch Americathon one more time, I’m taking a hike,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) vowed, during an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation last week.

Obama, a recent high-school graduate in Hawaii when Americathon first played in theaters, obtained the DVD in March. Since then, observers say, he has shown little interest in his usual favorite movies, which include Bruce Almighty, Invictus, and Deep Impact, all of which have enjoyed multiple screenings at the White House.

“Daddy just keeps watching that dumb old Americathon, over and over and over,” said one highly placed presidential family member who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “I keep asking if I can see the new Harry Potter movie, but he says no. Now everybody at school has seen it already, but I still haven’t. It’s just not fair.”

Americathon is unrated by Rottentomatoes.com. The screenplay, by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, based on their stage play, accurately predicts the demise of the Soviet Union and China’s emergence as a global economic power. The movie also features a musical performance by Elvis Costello, and appearances by Howard Hesseman, Jay Leno, Tommy Lasorda, and Chief Dan George.

“‘Renegade’ was watching Americathon again last night,” a member of the President’s Secret Service detail said, using Obama’s code name. “He stuck his head out for a minute and asked for a pencil and some note paper, the sheet music for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ and could we get him a private number for Jerry Lewis. Beats me why he’d want that stuff.”

“At least when ‘Eagle’ was watching Girls Gone Wild, you knew what he was after,” a Secret Service colleague concurred.

In other Washington news, budget talks between the White House and Congressional leaders stalled again yesterday, and no agreement was reached on an increase in the federal debt ceiling. Moody’s, the rating agency, warned of a possible “credit downgrade” if the government’s borrowing authority hits its limit on August 2.

Obama has screened the movie for his Cabinet several times.
Hillary Clinton finds Meat Loaf’s performance “disconcerting,” according to State Dept. sources; Vice-President Biden has reportedly inquired what ever happened to “that Zane Busby person.”

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